A Sinner Ficherman and the Sharks of Al Dakhla
Salid («Ficher»), nicknamed Atsim («Sinner»), was, throughout his life, an octopus fisherman in Al Dakhla, a small dot on the map, near the Tropic of Cancer, on the West Coast of Atlantic. Son of a peasant, he was only fourteen when he fled to Casablanca. It was an ardor of teen-ager who could not adapt to the reality of life and who did not want to plow the field of his father, a land covered with stones and sand that his family had owned for centuries and was part of the Plateau of Phospahtes near Khouribga.
After the short period of rain that came with the month of February, his parents sowed wheat, but Allah rarely took pity to let a few more drops falling again from the sky. Usually, around the month of April, the sun had burned everything. His parents then hurried to mow the wheat still green, whose ears were not formed, in order to use it as feed for sheep and goats.
Salid was the oldest of seven children growing up at home, four sisters and three brothers – a normal family in Morocco. Sometimes he worked as a day laborer on the farm of a large land owner. But this opportunity happened so rarely that it droved him to despair.
Since his childhood, Salid had liked sleeping in the sun and had let himself to be overcome by a mild drowsiness similar to the one which takes hold in a drug addict. Also, the young boy has spent time with the cattle he had to graze. However, he has learned by heart the daily prayers – «pre-dawn» («fajr»), «noon» («dhuhr»), «afternoon» («aasar»), «sunset» («maghrib»), «evening» («iisha»), the prayers coming up from the Hijri time, a veritable oral library.
Finally, Salid arrived in Casablanca. There he got hired without a work permit on a building site. They were constructing a four-storey villa, typical housing of many middle class Morrocan families. All day he shoveled up gravel into the tank of a mini concrete mixer. He had a lunch break for one hour, from 12.00 to 13.00. That was the time for his noon prayer. Salid relaxed well during the noon and afternoon prayers, and to this end, he tried to extend a quarter of an hour the time allocated to the seven prostrations included in each prayer. He also gained time by washing his face, mouth, ears, nose, arms – to the elbows – and feet, according to the preliminary proceedings transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad. In addition, he wet his hair, fashionably.
Salid spent the nights on the site. He slept on a large fifty centimeters mattress made of polyurethane, which was lying on the floor in a hut made of planks of wood that he shared with five or six other comrades. Fortunately, the joints of the planks were not vera tight and made possible a natural ventilation. Otherwise, the smell of the sweat could make them feel a tad nauseous. Salid bathed with cold water taken directly from a pipe that was right next to the mini concrete mixer. The few clothes he had, were washed on Sunday, his only day off, in a basin that everyone used on the building site. The sun and the breeze dried them in an hour at most.
He usually liked to eat half chicken with rice («nasf jaja maa aruj»). It was very affordable: he could be well fed with only six dirhams (1 dollar = 3 dirhams). The young man ate near the building site in a fast food restaurant, Arabic style. The restaurant had a terrace shaded by a few figs with leaves covered by a thick layer of dust. The building was small with unplastured walls and whose bricks came from a demolition site. The table was made of sheet metal and its dye, largely erased. A thin boy with a dirty apron, with spots left to guess the menus of the last days, was moving among the tables, dispaying a toothless smile of an accomplice. Although he had the hands of a laborer, all calluses were white, as they were washed with strong detergents. And all this was in contrast with his brown and shiny epidermis, of a dark man with sunburned skin.
The money earned on his job was enough for Salid to buy food and cigarettes. His big concern was where to sleep and what to eat. But, over time, a new concern began to take shape: with whom to have sexual relations. He had been taught from childhood many things related to sexual act. In addition, since he was little, he looked carefully the animals arround the house. He figures out the rest by listening to the older boys and girls. However, he had not enough practice.
On a Sunday, he went to the neighborhood of «Al Fan» («Art») which was renowned throughout the city of Casablanca for its few clandestine brothels, which operated with the tacit approval of the authorities. King Hassan II, King of Morocco from 1961 to 1999, believed that men become calmer by having sex and this could reduce any appetite for popular revolt.
Salid walked into one of the brothels, the most suitable. In the doorway was standing a woman so ugly that she could be mistaken for a beggar. In the reception room, occupying the place of honor three plump women, with dyed red hair and breasts like two deflated footballs were wating for potential clients. The hair in the middle of their head had become black again, the natural color of the hair. The Arabs, also as Gypsies, like big breasted women. The three bitches appered to be over fifty, even if they were much younger. He had chosen one at random, called Quahba («Whore»).
«The total» was thirty dirhams, one tenth of what he earned per month. They entered a room on the first floor, a high standard by French standards between the two wars with a metal bed in the middle. A hook and a table with two chairs completed the furniture. The wallpaper was torn and faded , looking like the «indecent» plane tree. The floor creaked with every step and when Salid sat on the bed, it creaked again. The young man felt a spring out of the mattress. «Spread your legs» («Karshi arjul»), ordered Salid at a some point, after his gaze swept up and down the naked body of the woman. Then the call to prayer started.
The decibels from the four speakers installed on the top of the mosque minaret, visible even from the bed, reached them through the window: «Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest. There is no god except Allah. There is no God except Allah. Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. Come to prayer! Come to prayer! Come to salvation! Come to salvation! Allah is the greatest, Allah is the greatest. There is no God except Allah. There is no God except Allah.» («Allah acbar. Allah acbar. La Illah ila Allah. La Illah ila Allah. Muhammad Rasul Allah. Muhammad Rasul Allah! Haya aala Salat! Haya aala Falah! Haya aala Falah! Allah acbar. Allah acbar. There is no other God but Allah.») At each call, Quahba, frightened, stopped suddenly in full movement. Religion is powerful among the Arabs and Allah may punish in an exemplary manner those who do not meet the five pillars of faith: profession of faith (There is no God except Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah); performance of the praying ritual five times a day; respect of fasting during Ramadan; alms-giving ritual; carrying out a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in the lifetime by every able-bodied and that can afford to do so. Even children who are still in the womb of their mother hear the muezzin’s call; they probably could say it by heart from birth if they could speak.
The temporary frigidity of his partner made Salid furious. He himself said that instead of enjoying the erotic fantasies for which he had paid a small fortune, he was forced to listen to the call to prayer. The blood began to boil in his veins. Irritated, he asked Quahba to do her job. But, unwittingly, she could not comply with orders received, as her mind was filled with the fear to Allah. She smiled through, a set of hideous teeth. As result of receiving punches from other guests, she didn’t had not more front teeth. The money spent in vain for a woman, it was too much for an Arab! Salid was a bundle of nerves. A strong punch given from top on bottom, in the face, made the blood to spart from the swollen lips of Quahba. Once more a punch. «Come to salvation!» The woman – still inert. Another punch. «Allah is the greatest!» A new bestial punch. The woman’s eyes were still. In doubt, Salid stopped the rain of punches. The woman did not move anymore. A massive heart attack was fatal.
After a short trial, Salid was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for murder. He could have received the maximum sentence, twenty-five years, but there were extenuating circumstances: the death of Quahba was not caused only by his punches!
Salid was imprisoned in the penitentiary of Casablanca, where he became the preferred partner of his cellmates, as he was… young, «fresh meat»! In return, he was rewarded with hashish (the «kif» in the North African dialect). Salid used it to make, in a traditional way, a cigarette, the «juan», as the Moroccans used to call a cigarette with hashish. Here it is the way he fixed it: first he crushed a cigarett and got out the tobacco. Then he warmed the «kif» for two seconds, using a match, to make it malleable. Then he kneaded well in the palm of his hand tabacco and hashish, then rolled this mixture into a sheet of cigarette. There is no prohibition on the consumption of hashish in the Coran and it is used officially by the Shiit Islamic sect of assassins, whose name derives from «hashashun», word designating hashish smokers. They became famous for the cruelty used to kill their enemies. The term assassin, with the meaning of killer, started with them.
For five years, Salid had looked totally resigned through the square window, as big as the half of his head, to the district of Burj al Aiin (The Source of the Fortress). At the end of this period, King Hassan II organized the «Green March» («Khadira al Massira»). It was November 6, 1975, when three hundred and fifty thousand unarmed Moroccans crossed the border of Trafayaa, in order to annex the former colony of Spanish Sahara. It was a territory that had belonged to Morocco between 1147 and 1269, the time of the Berber dinasty of Almohads. After the occupation, the territory had to be «morocconized», so the State could win the referendum proposed by the United Nations to recognize or not this annexation.
But who would go voluntarily in an area covered ninety percent with the sand of the Sahara Desert? King Hassan II decided to send prisoners who wanted to settle there in exchange for commuting their sentence. Salid was among the first volonteers, so left the cell where the sun seemed to be square and as large as the half of his head for an exile life in the desert of Al Dakhla.
Al Dakhla is a small town at the end of a narrow peninsula, twenty-five kilometers long and five kilometers wide (a kind of Gaza strip, but smaller in size) in the shape of an «L». It is located in a rectangular bay, two miles wide, with the same name. The peninsula is flat, bordered by an abrupt ridge, about twenty feet high. The waters of the Al Dakhla Bay is home to numerous species of fish, crustaceans and marine mammals. But the richness of these waters is, in fact, represented by the octopuses. Their fishing is the main activity of the inhabitants of Al Dakhla. The Japaneses, who enjoy seafood delicacy for dietery and aphrodisiac qualities, had built a cold storage, just adjacent to the port.
Arriving at Al Dakhla, Salid had to choose between fishing in a boat, off the Atlantic Ocean, and fishing in a rowing boat in the bay of Al Dakhla. He chose the second proposal – octopus fishing. Local authorities provided him with a rowing boat, ten plastic can of five gallons and a metal spear, sharpened at one end. The plastic cans had the top removed and a hole in the bottom large enough so the metal spear can pass through. Salid found that his job was relatively simple and the octopus are not very smart.
Every night he led his boat in the middle of the bay. He let the cans to fall to the bottom of the water. All the cans were fixed in a horizontal position with a rope. Octopuses, who were seeking a shelter, entered the cans. In the morning, Salid had only to lift the cans, while the octopuses, instead of running away, clung even stronger with their suckers to the walls of the false shelter, while believing that they could better protect themselves against marine predators. Then Salid picked up all the cans, introduced the spear through the hole that had the bottoms of each can and pricked the octopuses, which, in pain, left the «shelter». Then he carried the caught octopuses to the cold Japanese store and sold them. On average, Salid fished daily four octopuses, in exchange for which he received a total of thirty dirhams, representing at that time and, specially, in exile, a decent income.
Salid lived in the neighborhood of Matar («Airport»), in a rented studio. The building, a former dormitory barrack, was not at all pleasant. By building some interior walls, the space was divided into several small pieces. Every exterior wall of each room had a door. Beside the door was a small square window, just large enough that one could get his head through. As for furniture, Salid had a bed, a luxury for many Moroccans, one table, two chairs and a wardrobe. The kitchen: a bottle of gas for cooking. In the corner, separated from the rest of the room by a curtain, there was the toilet. A Turkish closet, with the subsidiary role of a shower, and a sink formed all the plumbing. For this studio Salid payed a rent of two hundred and ten dirhams.
Half of the rooms in the building were rented by women who practiced the oldest profession in the world. They, also, had chosen exile rather than prison. At Al Dakhla, nobody bothered them and so life in exile was more bearable. With their faces pressed against the barred windows they watched the passerby and if somebody was interested, you could hear them say: «You come in?» («Intsa aji?»). The neighborhood of Matar was the poor relative of the famous Red Light District of Amsterdam, where fifty-one windows offered the show of summary dressed prostitutes, wrapped in a red light. Salid had quickly made friends with two of his neighbors. He brought them fish caught during the night; the women prepared the meal and rendered him other services. It was a real barter to survive. Sometimes, he even gave them money, because he had some.
Salid was twenty-five years now. He became a strong and self-confident man. His new frown beard gave him the allure of a boat captain. Even his clothes were those of a sailor. His life became orderly. He spent the night in his boat and in the morning he gave his two neighbors a hemp sack full of fish. In exchange the women offered him a hot breakfast. If they were busy with customers, they packaged his food to go. After eating, he went to bed. He slept like a log until two o’clock in the afternoon. Then he went to the harbor and spent two to three hours in the shade of a terrace to the east, from which one could glimpse the African continent. He loved gazing at the infinite extent of the land more than that of the sea. It gave him a sense of security. Salid sipped one or two glasses of mint tea and smoked a half pack of cigarettes. However, to keep up with the news, he undertook a short discussion with the people sitting at other tables. Once he learned that a convoy of trucks was attacked by members of the Polisario Front near Al Dakhla. Men were killed during the confrontation and trucks caught fire.
– Frente Polisario? What does that mean? Salid asked a guest.
– This is an acronym for Frente Popular de Liberation of Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro. «Po» comes from «Popular», «li» from «Liberation», «sa» from «Saguia», «ri» from «Rio» and «o» «Oro». The organization was officially incorporated May 10, 1973, in order to free the Sahara from the Spanish rule. After the Spanish withdrew, following the signing of the Agreement of Madrid on November 14, 1975, members of this organization began to fight against us. They say we, Moroccans, occupied their country.
Salid’s daily schedule continued with another snooze of two hours at most. Then he went fishing. Once in port, he took his boat and rowed one to two kilometers before he anchored and set the cans at the bottom of the bay to catch octopuses. Then he threw the line to catch some fish. He loved most nights of full moon («Lyal maa al badr»). A deep silence fell upon his soul. He had the time to think about his life, his future plans, and to remember all sorts of things. Only the episode «Quahba», he tried to forget, but could not manage it. He asked himself if this exile on the edge of the Sahara desert was a punishment enough for the homicide. In such circumstances, Salid preferred watching the vastness of the sea, broken up here and there by the dorsal fins of sharks, jumping dolphins or other marine creatures. Sometimes a few hours after midnight, an exhaustion overhelmed him, giving him a cold sweat in the back. He lay curled up at the bottom of the boat reliving the nightmares of Quahba. Then he would wake up and could not longer sleep until dawn.
There were two things that bothered him teribly at Al Dakhla: the storms and the invasions of flies. When the storm came, he could’t go fishing and his income declined drastically. Sometimes the storms lasted even a week. As Salid could not stand being bored, he drowned his bitterness in drink. He spent his days on the porch of the port and could empty ten beer bottles, while smoking two packs of cigarettes. Then he became aggressive with everyone. Those who knew him, octopuses’ catchers avoided him, taking fright. The only one who dared speak to him was the owner of the terrace, who said, with the pipe in the corner of his mouth: «Salid, you are a sinner! You will not die in your bed, by old age! You have a special destiny.» The second annoyance was when the high wind was blowing from the continent. The Sahara desert was a huge dump of garbage dumped by passers-by, where flies would develop rapidly. The swarms were sometimes the size of a hot air balloon. When the wind began to blow, flies took flight, otherwise they would have been covered by sand. Carried by the wind from the east, they were pushed towards the ocean, to certain death. If by any chance, an obstacle came in their way, like a house, they would hang in despair forming a black and thick layer over it. If there was a person – as well. The flies entered their ears, nostrils, under clothes, covering them head to toe. The unlucky ones looked in great haste for shelters, in houses or taverns. The drivers could not continue, their jornay, because the windshilds were covered with flies, like a black curtain through which no ray of light could pass. If they would have tried to use the wipers, an opaque film of viscous blood would have form instantly.
At Al Dakhla, it was yet another unpleasant thing awaiting Salid which turned out to be fatal. In a calm night with a full moon, he laid down at the bottom of his boat. His ears trembled with all the noises made by passing sharks or playing dolphins. However, a huge wave, a tsunami triggered by an undersea earthquake, was heading into a sepulchral silence towards the Gulf of Al Dakhla. The wave lifted to ten meters above the sea and capsized the boat of Salid. The metal spear stung one knee of the fisherman. Stunned and hurt, he found the force to swim to the surface. The wave had passed, but Salid remained alone at the sea. His boat sunk. He stripped naked and began to swim slowly, economically, to the shore. He had at least one kilometer to go before he got there. Feeling pain in his knee, he turned on his back and lifted the injured leg. He was able to see that the prick was not too great, but was bleeding slightly. He calmed down and continued to swim.
Five minutes later, one shark strated circling him. Then another. The drops of blood attracted a dozen hungry sharks. Salid realized he could not escape them. Next, a bite came on the bleeding leg. The unbearable pain was overhelming. In his mind appeared, like a flash, the terrified face of Quahba, his nightmare. His suffering lasted a few seconds. Salid was pulled to the bottom, becoming the target of the famished fury of the sharks.
The next afternoon, all the octopuses’ catchers from Al Dakhla gathered on the terrace of the Port to discuss the tsunami and realized that only Salid was absent. The owner of the terrace, with the pipe in the corner of his mouth, mumbled mostly to himself: «May Allah, Most Gracious and Most Merciful, forgive him sins! I knew that Salid will not die in his bed, by old age. He had a special destiny.»
The translation and the adaptation are realized by the author himself.